The Day Begins in the Evening: Easter Vigil Sermon 2019

 

The day begins with the evening.

The day begins with the evening. We have gathered here tonight as the sun rolls off the hills surrounding us, and two thousand years ago, long before light pollution, in Jerusalem, the night surely had fallen deep and complete around the city.

And it was in this darkness, in the depth of the night, that Jesus rose from the grave.

The day begins in the evening; and as our Creation account tells us tonight, the day has always begun in the evening.

“In the beginning,” reads Genesis, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep … and God created Light, and God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness … and there was evening. And there was morning. The first day.”

The day God creates begins in the evening. 

This is why, to this day, Jews all over the world begin to mark the sabbath when the sun goes down on Friday night. When most of Western culture assumes the day is winding down, God’s own people know: the twilight marks just the beginning.

God is perhaps most creative in the blackness, in the void over the face deep.

And yet we live in a world where darkness can feel frightening. I hear this phrase all the time: “These are dark times we live in.” These dark times when news feels bleaker every day. These dark times of loneliness lurking in hospital rooms, in the hardship of saying goodbye. These dark times when children are pulled away from their parents, these dark times when the world watches with horror as a nearly-thousand-year-old church collapsing in under the weight of a burning roof.

And yet, in darkness, God is blooming.

The day begins with the evening. Which is why our story tonight picks up in the early dawn; Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James, and Joanna, and the other womyn – they find one another in the late darkness, the early dawn.

Maybe they find one another with furtive glances on the road to the tomb, silently stealing past centurions along the city gates, centurions sent to keep the Jewish people under control on this holy Passover, that holy festival where Jews remember that God did not make humans to live in chains.

The womyn gather in the way womyn are taught to know to gather when there has been a death, the way womyn know that in the midst of chaos and trauma someone has to clean off the countertops and put food in the refrigerator: maybe it is as if Joanna knows to make her best casserole because ladling the ingredients into a dish won’t bring back Mary’s boy, but it will give her something to do with her hands.

Except instead of casseroles and cleaning countertops, the womyn have prepared ointments they intend to use to anoint Jesus’ corpse.

These womyn walking in the darkness are probably not fearless, but they are going to plunge their way into this early dawn, and they are going to meet their Lord.

They just don’t know it yet.

They arrive at the place, the tomb, only to find the stone is gone. Gone. Our text says they were “perplexed” by this but I think this translation is too soft: the root of the Greek word used here is “rhipt-to” [ρίπτω] which means to “hurl” or “throw.” The ground under their feet is destabilized,  because what the womyn have known has been hurled out of that tomb’s gaping door.**

And then: two dazzling strangers appear. Terrified, they drop to their faces but these dazzling strangers say the most shocking thing: “why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here, but has been raised.” And in my imagination I hear a dramatic pause, a moment when these dazzling strangers maybe smile softly, even coyly and say:

“Remember?”

“Remember what he told you, while he was still in Galilee?” Before he entered Jerusalem, before the palms and before the last supper, when you were by the sapphire blue waters and he was unfolding God before you? Remember?

“The Human One must be handed over to sinners, and crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

And the womyn remember. They remember who God is. And they remember that nothing could keep God from loving them and nothing could keep God in a grave when God, you might recall, cast the heavens and the earth into place.

In this account of the resurrection, there is no mistaking Jesus as the gardner, there is no Jesus meeting the womyn on the road. What the womyn have are their memories, an empty tomb, and dazzling strangers.

And when they run to tell the others disciples, all those disciples hear is an idle tale.

Can we blame them? (I’ll be honest: I do wonder how much quicker womyn would have been ordained if the disciples believed the womyn right away.) And while I say that jovially and seriously, I do have sincere empathy for the disciples – the womyn are reminding them of their own memories of their Jesus whom they just saw on the cross. In fact, the Common English Bible translates this verse as: “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.”

… Resurrection is nonsense. Resurrection is so incandescently strange that it defies the logics we have of life plummeting to an unceasing end. Resurrection is nonsense. And yet: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is real.

Resurrection is dazzling nonsense that threatens the very powers and principalities that put Jesus on the cross. Jesus’ resurrection defies the empire that hung him as a criminal. Jesus’ resurrection shows that no forces of oppression in this world will be the final word.

And resurrection is a dazzling nonsense that interrupts our own trauma. Because the disciples were traumatized and here these womyn come, clamoring that in the depth of the darkest night, Jesus has conquered death. It is easier for the disciples to continue to believe what they had seen: that their Messiah had abandoned them, and they had abandoned him, and he had died brutally, publicly, and finally.

The hope these womyn are shouting does not make sense because there is a powerful temptation to believe the worst thing is the truest thing.

But hope, like the day, begins with the evening – hope begins in the darkness when there is only the dim memory of who God was when things were easier.

Choosing to have the hope of the resurrection is not convenient, or sensible. Which is why we must choose hope. Hope may be nonsensical, but so too is Jesus. Resurrection does not undo the crucifixion, but Christ rising from the grave tells us: death does not have the final word. And what Jesus does shows us: there is nothing so broken, so awful in our lives that it is beyond resurrection. Jesus rose from the grave so we can, too.

Easter begins with the evening. And Easter is the promise that illumines the world, the promise that no part of you and no part of this world is beyond the resurrection of God. This present darkness in our own lives – the darkness of loss, sorrow, pain – these are not the final word. God is blooming, creating, chasing us down in the darkness because nothing – no fear, no shame, no past, no present, not even death will keep the living God from calling us all into Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus bursts forth from the tomb in dazzling darkness and light, the Creator who has no end and no beginning.

We have seen the empty tomb with these womyn, we have seen this nonsense that is God’s dazzling love for us and we now must tell the world our good, nonsensical news: even in this present darkness, Jesus is not in the tomb, but is risen. Amen.

 


 

** I am sincerely indebted to my wonderful friend Brian Fox, M.Div., for this insight! Aporeisthai [ἀπορεῖσθαι] derives it roots from “rhipt-to” [ρίπτω] which means to “hurl” or “throw.”

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